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If I could I would say to Mr Shelton,

‘When I was 17 and at an Anglican school

I had 50 cortisone injections in my face

and a year-long course of Roaccutane

(a drug that’s known to lead to suicide)

because I was riddled with acne.

 

At the age of 48 my face remains scarred

(like a burns victim, I sometimes joke)

and every morning I look at myself and

remember the staggering weight of those days

when I knew that all I wanted – and needed –

was to fall in love with boys.

 

Do you see now, Lyle, do you see?’

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The Wyoming mountains bring men together, in more ways than one.

The Wyoming mountains: bringing together words and broken men.

I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.

At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:

The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.

The cover of the original story; mine's still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

Mine’s still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.

Death’s been good to me. Up until relatively recently at least.  I’ve lost grandparents – as if somehow I’ve simply misplaced them – but that happens to all of us, doesn’t it, the loss, not the misplacement.  Then, strike, first one, then another, two wonderful people, a cousin and a friend, both women, strong women, no nonsense, no bullshit, and now they’re gone.

My cousin, my extraordinary cousin, she was a poet, a good poet, eminent say some – they made a movie out of one of her books so that might qualify her as eminent.  But she’d hate that word.  ‘Oh cuz,’ she’d say, ‘don’t go down that road.’  She was the oldest of cousins, and I am the youngest, so I have only a few memories of her when we were growing up, family get-togethers at Christmas.  Some of the parents called her precocious; I was scared of her.  As an adult, however, I plucked up the courage to email her, and she replied with the best words I’d ever heard: ‘Cuz, if you’re looking for a friend for life you’ve got one in me.  I really am a very simple person.’  A friend for life.  But now she’s gone.  (She would never have wanted her end to define her, so you’ll get no details from me.)  I can’t stop thinking about her.  To some – many – she was indeed a poet.  To me, she was the guide to my family, my nut-case family, because from her position she could see so much.

My friend, my extraordinary friend.  She was an actor.  Whenever she was on stage I couldn’t see her, so completely did she dissolve into the characters she played.  Strange how now I’m thinking about this, my friend reminds me of my cousin, because both of them were small in stature, but strong, fierce, yes, they could both be fierce.  And hilariously funny, and sweet.  My friend: she married a good man, a kind man, a man with a motorbike.  One Saturday night, late, after midnight, she posted on Facebook: ‘Trying to work out whether or not to put on another load of washing.  That’s how exciting my life is!’  The next morning she and her good-man husband went off for a Sunday bike ride on the back roads into the country.  They didn’t come back alive.  So now my friend is gone, and I can’t stop thinking about her.  She was mad on pets, completely mad, so that every time one of my own animals is sick and I’m trying to decide whether or not a trip to the vet is warranted, I hear her say, ‘I can’t believe you have to think about this!  It’s your duty to spend every cent on your little guys if you need to!’

I love angels, in fact, if the truth be known, I’m obsessed.  But I don’t believe in them; I’m not sure I believe in an after-life of any kind.  Somehow, however, in some way, my cousin and my friend aren’t entirely gone. Yes, I think about them so much.  I hear them speak to me.  Wise words from my cousin, wise and blunt – ‘Compare yourself to no one, cuz, compare yourself to no one’ – and adoring words from my friend – ‘Oh Millie is the most beautiful dog, you know that, Nigel, don’t you?’ as if I’m blind to the luck around me.

And no doubt I am.

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